Before you even step inside Dumpling Darling in Des Moines’ East Village, savory smells of spices waft through the air. Servers balance tall towers of bamboo baskets filled to the brim with steaming dumplings to tables of hungry customers. Regulars belly up to the bar to order seasonal cocktails and sake. But take a closer look at the menu and you’ll notice something different.
While the restaurant serves more traditional dishes like japchae and bibimbap, these aren’t your typical dumplings. Dumpling Darling also specializes in unique culinary creations like the mac and cheese fried dumplings or rotating bevvy of dessert dumplings.
What started five years ago as a stand at the Iowa City Farmers’ Market has ballooned into two bustling locations in Iowa City and Des Moines. But owner Lesley Rish has hopes of extending Dumpling Darling’s reach even further, across more of the Midwest and beyond.
After graduating from the University of Iowa in 2010, Rish wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do as a career. She spent the next year teaching English in South Korea, which is where she fell in love with dumplings.
“Every neighborhood had a dumpling stand and I was there all the time, eating them at all hours of the day,” she says. “I realized that dumplings really are the best food in the world. They’re perfect for every occasion.”
But when she returned home to Iowa City, she missed the street food she had become accustomed to enjoying. While dumplings were becoming popular on the coasts, there still weren’t many places to enjoy them in Iowa.
“I had no culinary training or anything like that, but I really missed dumplings so I started making them for friends and family.”
Everyone seemed to enjoy the dumplings so Rish applied to have a stand at the Iowa City Farmers’ Market. In the beginning, getting to markets and other events involved Rish driving with trays of steaming dumplings on her lap and every other available surface in her small car.
“For the first year I was the only employee,” she says. “I made all the dumplings. I would make dumplings all day, every day. At the time my commercial prep kitchen was above John’s Grocery. I lived next door so I would walk over with a glass of wine and I’d be making dumplings all night.”
In 2015, Dumpling Darling expanded to a permanent stand in the NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids. Rish hired a few employees to help man the stand and prepare dumplings, and not even two years later she opened her first brick and mortar store in Iowa City.
With more than 75 employees and two thriving restaurants, Rish has come a long way from balancing steamers on her lap and hauling dumplings in the back of her car.
“I still get excited to see people in there,” she says. “It’s so awesome to see big groups of people sharing a bunch of foods and trying new things like drinking Soju.”
Rish has learned a lot in the five years since she started her farmers’ market stand. From the ins and outs of food licensing to managing a large staff, Dumpling Darling, like any small business, has had some growing pains.
“Things that you think are going to be easy are hard and things you think are going to be hard are easy,” she says.
One of those hard things has been managing two very different restaurant setups. Whereas the Iowa City location has only 20 seats and does much more grab-and-go business, the Des Moines space can hold up to 100 customers with a full bar. But through it all, Rish has worked to ensure that Dumpling Darling is backed by a team that puts the business and its customers first.
“I’ve also learned just how important it is to have good people working for you,” Rish says. “No one is ever going to care as much as you do, but you can find people who care almost as much as you do. The people really are who make the difference.”
As both locations have grown, one thing has remained the same — a love of dumplings and a desire to bring something new to the table.
While Rish says the steamed lamb and fried Korean chicken dumplings are by far the most popular, Dumpling Darling is constantly working through new flavors and fusions. In fact, the entire team throws out ideas for new dumpling creations. So far Rish says there haven’t been many flavor combinations or ingredients that have flopped.
“Honestly, you can put almost anything in a dumpling,” she says.